BOOK (1898)

Rewind, book: 'Futility or the Wreck of the Titan', by Morgan Robertson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 2:21pm

Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan

by Morgan Robertson

When the British ocean liner Titanic sank on her maiden voyage in 1912, it may have sounded eerily familiar to some people. The disaster was foreshadowed in the 1898 novella Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, by the American sailor Morgan Robertson.

Futility concerns a British liner - the SS Titan, the largest passenger ship ever built - which carries too few lifeboats. On an April voyage, the Titan hits an iceberg and sinks in the North Atlantic 400 miles from Newfoundland.

" 'Ice!' yelled the lookout. 'Ice ahead. Iceberg. Right under the bows.' The first officer ran amid-ships, and the captain, who had remained there, sprang to the engine-room telegraph, and this time the lever was turned. But in five seconds the bow of the Titan began to lift, and ahead, and on either hand, could be seen, through the fog, a field of ice, which arose in an incline to a hundred feet high in her track," Robertson writes.

Like the doomed Titan, the Titanic was described as unsinkable. It was the largest passenger ship ever built. It hit a North Atlantic iceberg 400 miles from Newfoundland in the same month, April. The Titanic carried too few lifeboats, causing mass drowning of the type also documented in Robertson's story. Then there is the striking similarity between the two liners' names.

The uncanny likenesses suggest Robertson was psychic and could see into the future. Either way, Futility is an eye-poppingly strange work of literature. Just try to think of another book that has been so prophetic. Move over, Nostradamus.

If only the plot of Futility, which explains why the author only made a pittance from writing, had been less corny. The plot reminiscent of Joseph Conrad at his ebb centres on the wayward John Rowland: a shamed former US navy officer turned drunkard. Sacked from the Navy, Rowland winds up working as a Titan deckhand. There, he runs into an old flame, Myra, as she travels from New York to England with her husband and daughter, also confusingly called Myra.

When the iceberg strikes, Rowland and the girl are eventually saved by a passing ship. Then, after overcoming alcoholism, he finds a well-paid government post.

You could dismiss the story as a melodramatic morality tale, but because of its vision Futility merits more than a bit part in the real Titanic saga.

David Wilson